A phantom thief,
stealing diamonds? The policemen laughed. “Abe woh to angrezi film mein hota
hai.” (“This happens only in English films.”)
This wasn’t some movie plot. News of the Opera House heists had travelled across police stations in South Mumbai: about a thief so cunning that he left no trace; so cunning, in fact, that the police doubt he even existed.
The case landed on the desks of Constable Hriday Mishra and Naik Shubash Mali. A robbery had been reported in the locker room of the Bank of India in Opera House. An officer from Lemington House called Mishra to tell him about the theft. The heist was the type that inspired the birth of legends, he’d said.
That’s exactly what Mishra and Mali thought too—that the case was make-believe, too unlikely to be true, nothing more than a legend.
Then Mehrulbhai Doshi, a Gujarati diamond merchant, walked into the Mumbai Crime Branch’s Unit II office in Mahalaxmi. A fresh-faced man he, for a strange reason, reminded Mishra of the actor Anushka Sharma. It was Doshi who, after months of trudging back and forth from his offices at Panchratna to Lemington Road police station, had registered the first FIR.
Uncut pavé diamonds had been stolen from his locker. They were valued at Rs. 1.65 crore. Now dark circles threatened to disrupt the calm of his face and his receding hairline, he later exclaimed, was edging further backwards.
He’d spent sleepless nights cursing the thief. At least he should have left a dent on the safe, a mark. But this one seemed to be a master craftsman, a professional of the highest quality. Not a scratch. Not a clue to be had from the steel.
Mishra tried to get a handle on the man. What if Doshi was spinning a tall tale? He could have cooked up this implausible story and then filed a FIR just to scam the insurance companies. “This city isn’t short on fraudsters,” said Assistant Sub-Inspector Bhaskar Kadam.
Doshi assured the cops he wouldn’t claim insurance. He’d said the same thing to the officers at Lemington Road police station. Mishra recalled Doshi as being agitated, his beady eyes sparking with rage.
“I’ve been robbed and nobody wants to believe me?” he bellowed at the Unit II office. The detectives remembered how out of place he looked in his white kurta-pyjamas.
The Unit II office with its beige walls and spartan furniture looks almost like a two-tier waiting room at a train station. There are no long queues of angry citizens, phones don’t go off, and there is no constable at the door, signing in people’s names. It looks like a set-up: if the men pack up their belongings and leave, it would look as though nobody had ever occupied this room.
Never have anything you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat. The only personal effect was a small temple with a red light bulb. God, the detectives said, gave them hope and luck.
Apun ko realty
chehti hai. Kya yeh aadmi sach bol raha hai?” (“I wanted the real stuff. Is
this man telling the truth?”)
For Mishra and Mali, Doshi was the prime suspect initially. When had he noticed the diamonds were missing? Why did he take so long to register a complaint? Why was his locker the only one to be looted? He answered the best he could: he’d deposited the diamonds in his locker and sought them out a week later. His younger brother had a spare key. They had checked their homes, the safety box in Dahisar. The key was there, but the diamonds were gone.
He’d spoken to the bank manager. He said he’d never asked what the clients kept in the safe, nor did he ask about what was taken out. It was policy. The bank was only responsible when the lock was broken, which it was not.
Mali and Mishra arrived at Doshi’s offices in Panchratna. The Panchratna building at Opera House houses the city’s diamond dealers. At any point of time, at least one pair of hands is exchanging the most sought-after rocks in the world. Many of the businesses don’t register the diamonds they have. Too many are afraid of income tax. Others operate in black. They asked the dealers about Mehrulbhai. What sort of man was he? Was he respected? They spoke to his employees.
“Hum to ek dum impress ho gaye, clear cut hua ke yeh sach bol rahe the,” said Mali. (“We were impressed, it was clear that he was speaking the truth.”)
“Ek dum white mein kam karte hai, woh to gentleman-businessman nikle,” said Mishra. (“His business is in white, he turned out to be a gentleman-businessman.”)
The case had them
This thief was a master, Mali thought. The detectives had never come across such a case. There had been heists in Bombay before but none where there was no damage done to the safe, or where no insider was involved.
What sort of magician would be able to conduct a heist without leaving a small imprint? That was the question Kadam asked himself.
This was a master thief, better than the Pink Panther thieves who looted the Graff Diamond jewellers in London and later Chopard in Cannes and Dubai. At least they had left a mark of their work behind.
In a world of thieves, Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “the only final sin is stupidity.” This thief was anything but stupid.The police didn’t even have a suspect.
It was all I thought
about,” says Mishra. Other members of the team started working overtime too.
They would finish their day’s investigations to start afresh on this case, from
six to nine every night.
First they would drink copious cups of chai. Then they moved to the stronger stuff: coffee. Constable Pramod Shirke, a techie, huddled in the backroom of Unit II with a giant projector replaying the CCTV footage the bank had provided. He saw the pixelated faces of those who entered the bank and exited. The images were often too grainy. The CCTV would delete footage every 20 days anyway, rendering the footage irrelevant. Still, Shirke looked for clues.
Mali and Mishra did the groundwork. They questioned the custodian who had the master key required to unlock each safe. When they were done with him, they called in the ex-custodians. They questioned the bank manager. They questioned the peon.
This was a master thief, better than the Pink Panther thieves who looted the Graff Diamond jewellers in London and later Chopard in Cannes and Dubai. At least they had left a mark of their work behind.
Everyone was a suspect. No one was a suspect.
Every action was a shot in the dark. They called in the locksmith from Godrej. They grilled him; he said the same thing time and again: No one can open those safes without the original keys. The locks had already been changed once before, after an incident involving another Gujarati diamond merchant.
A few weeks before
Unit II came on the scene, a law and order situation had broken out. Sharmaji,
a diamond dealer, had made a sale worth Rs. 50 lakh. His son had deposited
the money in the locker before vacationing in Goa. While he was away, Sharmaji
operated the safe and looked for the money. Kadam laughs as he recounts, “The
father thought the son had made off with it.”
Seething with rage, Sharmaji called his son.
The son returned with assertions of his innocence. Almost at once, father and son barged into the office of the bank manager. Howls of anger came from the room and Kadam was called in to quell the fight.
That’s when the officers found out that others too had been robbed. That’s when Mehrulbhai brought together a Union of Robbed Diamond Merchants to the officers. Crucially, that’s when the police estimated that around Rs. 9.5 crore had gone missing.
Most hadn’t registered FIRs but slowly they started coming forward.
Despite Shirke’s best efforts with the CCTV, that lead was a dud. This was mainly because there was no camera in the safe deposit room. The bank allowed its customers complete privacy in the room.
Mali, Mishra and
Mehrulbhai stood in a row in the safe deposit room. It was a small room, its
stuffiness countered by gusts of air blowing from the air conditioning unit.
Both the officers and Mehrulbahi were over 5'10", wide-shouldered and
therefore cramped for space. Two metallic staircases, used to access the
lockers on the top, were pushed to the side. The room was frosty and
unfriendly. The lockers ran from floor to ceiling; a white light lit the room.
The locker room offered no leads. Three months into the case, the detectives were as clueless as they had been on day one.
Mehrulbhai and Sharmaji had assisted them with dates. They made a list of dates when they had accessed the locker and when they had suspected the theft had taken place. The bank manager had handed over the ledger that noted all entries and exits, along with a heavy folder that contained all the customers’ biodatas.
Some 16,000 people had entered their names in the ledgers and 36,000 had used the lockers in a three-year period.
In the first two months of investigation, the officers eliminated suspects. They looked for a pattern but none emerged. They profiled the people: reputed businessmen; who was making money, who wasn't; who might be running into financial trouble; anyone who would give them a motive.
In the first two months they could find no man with a motive. But slowly, the number started decreasing from 1200 to a few hundred, down to 79 people.
A key component of investigation was groundwork. Mali and Mishra would hop on their motorbikes and question businessmen in Panchratna, look for clues, and follow leads. They walked around the area and poked their heads into other banks on Lemington Road.
The case led them from one dead end to another till they came upon a safe in a private vault in the district. A woman in a tightly-wound sari with streaks of grey in her hair came forth to assist them.
Had there been any robberies here?
There had, but the man who had been robbed wanted the case dropped. Probably black money, she recalled. She handed over a ledger and when the detectives went through the papers, one name stood out.
“Hamara common factor mil gaya,” recalls Kadam. (“We found the common link.”)
On being questioned, the woman recalled a chubby fellow standing awkwardly in the corner of the bank. He hadn't looked like a businessman. He always wore slippers—she found that odd. He didn’t speak English nor did he know how to write properly. In both biodatas, his form was incomplete.
No forwarding address. No telephone number. A dodgy signature.
Shamshubhai, as the cops started calling him, had opened a locker in 2004 at the Bank of India. On that form, the detectives found a number and finally, a definite trace. It was a landline number that Shirke began to trace with the help of MTNL. The lead took them to Khedwadi, a slum in Bandra.
Why would a diamond dealer live in a slum? Why would a slum dweller have a safety deposit box in the diamond area?
The number belonged to a south Indian, who used it at a small store which doubled up as an STD-ISD-PCO booth. When Mali and Mishra arrived on the scene, the owner had no clue. He recalled a Maharashtrian owning the phone before, and he was tracked down in the small alleyways of Khedwadi.
Frustrated, Mishra asked, “Yeh phone ka janam kayse hua?” (“Who got this connection?”)
The Maharashtrian recalled a Muslim family, but that was in 2003. Ask the streets, he told them, and a paanwala had an answer. There were three Shamshuddins in the area. One was a tailor, the other a mechanic, and the third was a property agent. The officers went with instinct and sought out the property agent.
To be a detective,
you don’t need to be educated. There are many IAS officers and they’re very
clever, but no book will tell you how to solve a case. No book tells you how to
commit a crime. This is something you can sense, you can feel. Or not,” said
The first time Mishra was scheduled to meet Shamshuddin, he was nervous, like he was meeting a girl he had a crush on. For hours, Mali and Mishra discussed tactics. What would they wear when they went to Kedwadi? Jeans? Half-pant?
They needed to look believable. They needed Shamshu in their grip.
First Mishra would speak to Shamshu in his local language. With that he would win his confidence. The Uttar Pradesh connection always worked. He would use the “emotional mood” and soften Shamshuddin, and like that he would win him over.
The first time Mishra was scheduled to meet Shamshuddin, he was nervous, like he was meeting a girl he had a crush on. For hours, Mali and Mishra discussed tactics.
So they planned. So they executed.
Shamshuddin was chubby, simple and short. He spoke fast and excitedly and back then, he was desperate to move some property. He was eager to make some money so that he could get his daughter married. Mishra suggested that Shamshu meet Mali, who would pose as a well-connected Maharashtian in the property game.
Mali was nervous about his role. He spent large parts of the week practising: learning property lingo and speaking to agencies about key slum redevelopment schemes. He memorised the names of bigwigs in the property world and on their first meet, began name-dropping.
Shamshu was impressed and soon the three struck up a friendship. They would travel around Mumbai looking at properties. Shamshu would come to meet Mali and Mishra at any location with copies of property papers. The trio would discuss possible deals. So close was their friendship that Mishra took a photgraph of Shamshu with Mali. Later, the same photograph was shown to the woman at the private bank.
This was the man.
Despite the friendship, one thing was for sure: sooner rather than later, they would have to come clean. Pressure from the top, from the office of the Joint Commisoner of Police, was coming down hard. How much longer, the top brass at Crawford Market kept asking.
“Hum ko emotional mood se police mood main jana tha,” Mishra says. (“We had to go back to playing cop.”)
At a chai store, Mali and Mishra hatched another plan. They would introduce Shamshu to a high-flying NRI who wanted an expensive property. This NRI would be their boss, Inspector Patil.
Inspector Patil made
a special effort to look like a NRI. He wore gold jewellery, a necklace, and a
chunky bracelet. His belt was flashy and his shirt very shiny. He ensured his
phone wouldn’t stop ringing, surmising that NRIs are always on their phones.
On Friday, just before the namaaz, the team left for Khedwadi in a Mahindra Scorpio.
They offered to meet at Shamshu’s house should he want to pray but Shamshu was embarrassed. He didn’t want a big man in his small slum house. Missing prayers for one day was fine, he insisted.
“Lalach mein admi dharma aur sub bhool jata hai,” says Mali. (“Greed makes you forget faith and everything else.”)
Shamshu had made a special effort that day too. His hair, usually creased to the left, was slicked back with Brylcreem. He was sandwiched between Mali and Mishra in the back of the Scorpio, talking wildly about Sonu Nigam’s property. This property was fit for an NRI, he kept saying.
By then, Inspector Patil had started talking about possible property in South Mumbai. Did Shamshuddin have anything there?
The Scorpio drove towards the sea link. The officers had decided that the sea link would be calm; it was the quietest stretch of land.
Inspector Patil enquired about office space in South Mumbai and then suddenly started asking about Opera House. He then asked about locker space and as Mali recalls,“AC gadi mein ekdum pasina pasina ho gaya.” (“He started sweating in an AC car.”)
“Shamshu to ekdum zero hogaya,” said Mali. (“Shamshu felt deflated.”)
Nervous, he then asked if he could smoke. The car pulled over on the sea link and for a brief moment, Mali feared that Shamshu would jump over and swim away. “Humne usko out kar diya,” says Mishra. (“We had outed him.”)
He held the officers' hands, asking them to help. He was a poor man. He was just a mule transporting keys. He didn’t know what the scene in the bank was. He knew there was wrongdoing but he wasn’t involved.
He cursed Ajay Mehta, a reputed diamond dealer. He wouldn’t let go of the officers' hands. He cursed Ajay Mehta some more. Shamshu fell to the ground and crouched, head in his hands.
It wasn’t me, he kept saying.
Before Ajay Mehta,
before the heist, there was an old family connection.
When Shamshu was young, he lived with an uncle who had a toy store. It was a small shop, one that didn’t bring in much money. So his uncle, a pious man, made taweez and sold them at dargahs and mosques. One day in the 1990s, Ajay Mehta chanced upon this man with a full beard and bought two taweez.
One taweez for safety, and one for protection from the evil eye.
From then on, Ajay Mehta became a Godfather-like figure to the family, giving small donations for weddings and meeting monetary demands as the family struggled to get by.
In those early conversations, Ajay Mehta learnt about the family’s old business as key makers. They had a storied family legacy as key and lock makers in Aurangzeb’s court. So sturdy were their locks that it was rumoured that nobody would be able to break them.
A young man name Fareed Azmi carried forth the family name and tradition. He made locks from his small store next to Bhayander station and handed them to Shamshuddin to deliver to Mehta.
When the officers arrived at the master key maker's store, he wasn’t there and had to be called in. He walked with a limp and had days-old stubble. Again, the officers had painstakingly manufactured another story. A key had broken in the lock of the car and they asked Fareed to come take a look. He entered the car and the officers shut the door behind him. Through the tinted windows, you couldn’t see the man's nervousness.
“Who are you? Where are you taking me?” he asked, over and over. They asked him if he knew Ajay Mehta. Fareed denied everything. They asked him if he knew that about Rs. 10 crore had been looted and, with wide eyes, he shook his head, gesturing no. They asked him if he knew Shamshu and he gestured yes.
He refused to speak. When he failed to give them any more information, the officers told Shamshu, who was crouching in the back of the car, to show his face. He joined his hands together in apology as his eyes met Fareed’s and told him to confess.“Sorry bhai, sab bata do,” he said. (“I’m sorry, tell them everything.”)
Fareed started talking. He did it for the money. He had many children at home, many mouths to feed. Being a key maker didn’t hold many prospects and prices were going up. He never asked what they keys were for, he just made copies.
Who wouldn’t, he asked. For Rs. 5000 per piece, this was good money, money that he sorely needed.
It would take him days to cut the keys without a sample. All that was brought to him was an uncut piece of metal that had been dipped in ink. Close inspection would reveal the fine lines, scratches and indentations on the ink. It was his job to make a key from that sample. For up to two months, Fareed would work on the key. The master key took the longest, over two months. So many keys were wasted. But Fareed never saw big money. He never saw more than a few thousand. Like Shamshu, Ajay would meet his needs. Thousands for a wedding, or a small loan.
Even he passed on the blame: to Ajay Mehta.
To Mishra, Ajay
Mehta looked like Amitabh Bachchan. He had the same salt-and-pepper hair and
full goatee. He was a simple man and was always well-dressed.
He was also a deeply secretive man with a strict rule about privacy. If anyone wanted to contact him, they were to call him from an STD-ISD-PCO booth. A call from a mobile phone would never be answered. Callers were not to let the phone ring for long. A missed call would do, and when he had the time, he would call back.
As the case was getting closer to being solved, pressure from the top started increasing. This case would go down as a landmark case and Mumbai police, often tainted, would be celebrated. The officers readied to get Ajay but since the diamond merchant preferred the simplicity of his house in Navsari, Gujarat, he was seldom at his house in Mumbai.
The team filed into the Scorpio and drove to Gujarat one night. On the way, they stopped at a dhaba where they ate and discussed how it would play out but again, this was just chitchat. Officers know that these things can’t be planned but they couldn’t stop discussing it excitedly, like schoolboys on a field trip. When they arrived at the house, they waited for Ajay. He didn’t leave his house. There was a wedding in the area and they thought he might would go for that, but again, he didn’t leave his house.
Finally, Mishra came
up with a plan. They would call him and say a child had been hurt at the
hospital that was a mere 50 metres away, and had given Ajay’s telephone number.
They called Ajay and his wife answered. Ajay returned the call and rushed to
the hospital to find no child. As he exited, Mali and Mishra called out,
“Ajay bhai, Opera House pe mile the.” (“Ajay bhai, we used to meet at Opera House.”)
Ajay was confused. When did they meet, he asked and then, the rest of the team came forth. Officers surrounded him and they revealed their identity.
Ajay Mehta smiled. He looked at the ground, almost as though he knew this day was coming.
In the diamond
business where happiness can be measured in carats, Ajay Mehta was jaded.
Nobody cared for the other, nobody helped the other.
Money, money, money.
One day he chanced upon a plan to right the wrongs of the diamond world. By mistake, he inserted his key into another locker and when he yanked his key out, it was covered with lines and cuts. What if other keys could be copied, he wondered.
He was angry with the diamond dealers around Panchratna. If someone needed Rs. 5000, no one would help. They would need to hear a thousand pleas before they help. Yet when there was a prospective deal, they’d give away Rs. 50 lakh worth of diamonds without any assurances.
“How small these people's hearts are,” he’d told Kadam once.
Ajay Mehta would become the self-styled Robin Hood of the Opera House diamond world. He’d start stealing diamonds and with that money he would help people in need. He made an imprint of the custodian key by pressing it on his palm. He took a picture of the indents and sent it over to Fareed. When the key was ready, he started going through lockers.
He never took all the money: he didn’t want to arouse suspicion. He worked with a man called Chandru Berde who acted as a watcher. Chandru’s locker was in the front of the room and he kept an eye out as Ajay went through one locker after another.
It is alleged that Ajay went through at least 16 lockers and walked away with over Rs.9 crore.
When the police went to recover the loot, they found most of it stored in Ajay’s locker. A small amount was recovered from Chandru’s. Most of the money was recovered and returned.
When they asked him what he was planning on doing with the money, he said, he wanted to set up a gaushala (a cowshed) and open a chairty.
The four—Ajay, Chandru, Shamshuddin, and Fareed—will face a court on July 25. In the meantime, their lives have not improved drastically.
Shamshuddin still lives in the slum.
Fareed still lives in a rented house in Nala Sopara.
Chandru still has his small 400 square foot house in Bhayandar.
Ajay bought a house: a humble 1BHk in Goregaon in which he seldom sleeps.
Most of the money has been returned, although Rs. 50 lakh remains to be collected as the owner of the money hasn’t come forth.
“This is the first case where the only person we brought in was the accused.”
The first to cry in the Unit II office was Shamshuddin and later, during the two-month interrogation period, all four cried.
“Upne ko target nikalna hai. Sidi ungli se nahin aata to thodi teri karna hai. Tedi ungli se nahin to pees ke nikalna hai.” (“We have to get results. The good, bad or the ugly way.”)
No officer raised his hand. There was no shouting because, as Mali recalls, these were not criminals; they were desperate men in a city where desperation is not frowned upon.
Postscript: Ajay Dubey, counsel for the four accused, says his clients are innocent and have been framed. He has refused to say anything more.